A part of New York City since 1898, voted...

STATEN ISLAND,

November 11, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

STATEN ISLAND, a part of New York City since 1898, voted last week to secede. The borough president celebrated by firing four shots from a Civil War cannon at each of the remaining boroughs.

This symbolic hostility by suburban Staten Islanders toward the city explains what has brought this nation to its present urban crisis. ("Crisis" is too mild a word for what has happened to cities the past quarter-century, but after 300 murders here this year, words fail me.) The middle class has moved out, washing its hands of a remaining population so poor it can't function on its own -- and is a mortal threat to itself and its neighbors.

There has to be a way to bring cities and suburbs together politically and governmentally, as David Rusk argues so compellingly in his book, "Cities Without Suburbs" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). He demonstrates that central cities that have the right to annex or otherwise "capture" suburban growth are healthier than those that can't. New York City, he notes, became a great, vibrant city when it incorporated Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx into one entity, and it remained so until those suburbs began to fill up or change their nature and the city's middle class began to move farther out Long Island and into Connecticut and New Jersey.

Most of the middle class flight into the suburbs from Baltimore and other cities has been white. Because of that, advocates of annexation have often been accused of racism. But things have changed. Middle class blacks are moving out as fast as whites now. It's quirkiness and poverty that keep people in cities these days. According to the 1990 Census, the median income of whites in Baltimore City is below the median income of blacks in Baltimore County, Carroll County and Howard County.

It's not just whites calling for annexation now. Last month, the black mayor of Memphis, W. W. Herenton, proposed that his city merge with its surrounding county, Shelby.

David Rusk says Memphis is acting ahead of the curve. The city hasn't sunk yet, but "it has sprung some leaks." If it can add the land area where middle class citizens have fled and to which many more will flee or move to from other suburbs in the future, Memphis can head off becoming another "Detroit, Cleveland or Newark." Or Baltimore.

Rusk calls cities that can expand "elastic." He groups cities as having "Zero," "Low," "Medium," "High" and "Hyper Elasticity." "Hyper" is best. "Zero" is worst. Zero-elastic cities are more racially segregated than the others, and their city-suburb income disparity is greatest, among other indicators of ill health.

Baltimore is a "Zero." Memphis is a "High." If it merges with Shelby County, it should become a "Hyper." (Charlotte is a "Medium.")

We're a "Zero" because the state constitution allows suburban voters to veto annexation by the city. I think I know how to overcome that.

Monday: How.

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